The weird, black, spidery things of Mars

See those weird, black, spidery things dotting the dunes in this colorized photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010? Yeah. Nobody knows what the hell those things are.

What we do know about them just underlines how incredibly unfamiliar Mars really is to us. First spotted by humans in 1998, these splotches pop up every Martian spring, and disappear in winter. Usually, they appear in the same places as the previous year, and they tend to congregate on the sunny sides of sand dunes — all but shunning flat ground. There's nothing on Earth that looks like this that we can compare them to. It's a for real-real mystery, writes Robert Krulwich at NPR. But there are theories:

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it's transformed my idea of what it's like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I've thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain.

"If you were there," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, "you'd be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice. All around you, roaring jets of carbon dioxide gas are throwing sand and dust a couple hundred feet into the air." The ground below would be rumbling. You'd feel it in your spaceboots.

Read the rest of Robert Krulwich's post — and check out some spectacular photos of the things — at NPR


  1. Do you have permission to show photographs of the BP Oil Fields on Mars? Their lawyers can be quite vicious in defending BP’s individual rights.

  2. Mars mushroom-cacti. How tall are they?  And how is it that I’ve heard more than I ever want to about that stupid “face” and I’ve never heard of this?


    1. I guess if the competing explanations are phototropic mars-algae and 100 meter geysers then nobody really knows how tall they are.

    2.  Like Cliff says, a whole lot of cactopodes that have never been in my kitchen. Oh, but they have!! NASAs budget is $1,725 a year from every US taxpayer, that’s one heck of a lot of groceries!! And $175 of that is for the Space Shuttle program 2013. What? The Space Shuttle is retired! Apparently NASA didn’t get the memo. $3.5B a year for the Space Shuttle program ’13.

      1.  I think the next probe we send should leave behind observation posts that network and send pictures of their surroundings back to the rover/base station for transmission back to Earth. We’re getting cross-section photos here, we need longtitudional studies!

  3. I spent waaaaaaaayy too much time chasing these things down a few years back online. They’re known as “Seeps” and some of them ran for miles and miles across the surface, sometimes even going uphill. Had a huge collection of them bookmarked but that was a different computer.

  4. The Weird, Black, Spidery Things of Mars is one of my favorite novels.  Someone should make it into a movie.

  5. Those are clearly the tops of underground trees. Now if we can only get some good shots of the woodpeckers…

  6. Clearly Someone didn’t brush the crumbs from the cake before adding the delicious burnt-sugar icing.

  7. Maybe they are only on the sand dunes because they MAKE the sand dunes. Then, naturally, the wind blows the sand around into typical dune shapes. As well as the black iron sulfide type seepage spewing and blowing about. We have the same kind of thing on earth, except ours are typically undersea, called black smokers. They are responsible for massive sulfide deposits, which we can thank for most of the precious metals we possess.

  8. HELLOOOOOOO…. of *course*, they are sandworms, coming up to warm themselves in the springtime sun. *eyeroll*

  9. “Enhance”
    Definitely lost Ewoks marching in a line.
    (Wrong planet? I said they were lost, didn’t I?)

  10. That’s a firing range.  Marvin has been testing his Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.

  11. My dispassionately reasoned conclusion was, sharkfin trees. They pop up out of the top of the dunes to maximize available heat, light and updrafts. Tiny seedpods crackle open on the warmest days of Spring, launching light, feathered spores like powdery carbon black snowflakes that can travel an entire hemisphere in the month of wind.

    On another note I’ve been thinking our next rovers should be able to jump and include legs, and arms to right yourself after a tumble. Maybe necessary for exploring geyser country?

  12. Two or three of the orbital photo’s, at Rocket Krulwich’s site, look like  giant ‘caterpillars’ with setae (hairs) on its body segments. 

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